Transport yourself back a typical scene from life in the 90s. You and your friends were just about to go bowling, and maybe catch the newest Tom Hanks movie (Forrest Gump – it got really good reviews!) afterwards. Then you remembered! You were going to miss the newest Fresh Prince! Just as your friends pull up, you quickly pull out a video cassette and put it into your VCR. You set the VCR to start recording when the show starts. Satisfied, you jump into your friend’s car and drive off.
Until the introduction of TiVo at the 1999 Consumer Electronics Show1, the only way to save TV shows was with your VCR, or videocassette recorder. The VCR would be connected to the same outputs that send signals to your television, allowing it to receive the same signals. The VCR read audio and video television signals and recorded them to a video cassette, a storage device that used magnetic tape to record information about the video and audio4. While the technology offered unprecedented freedom, it wasn’t perfect. For one, you had to keep track of and label dozens of and dozens of tapes if you wanted to keep track of a show you could never catch at the right time. You also had to remember to put the tape in every time. You also couldn’t watch a show from the beginning if you were recording it – you needed to wait for the recording to finish, rewind the tape, and then watch it.
Enter the DVR, or digital video recorder. First introduced in 1999, the DVR was very similar to the VCR with one critical difference – the media was recorded to an internal hard drive, just like the kind in your computer. This innovation came with a whole host of advantages. For one, you weren’t limited by the size of the videocassette. While later VHS tapes could record up to 9 hours3, today’s DVRs can record up to 300 hours2 of standard definition programming. Further, since the hard drives were based on spinning disks and not tape, you didn’t need to wait for a recording to watch a show – you could just watch the part that had been recorded. You also didn’t have to take out a tape and put another one in when you wanted to switch shows – DVRs let you seamlessly switch because everything was in one place.
While later VHS tapes could record up to 9 hours, today’s DVRs can record up to 300 hours of standard definition programming.
Let’s go back to that 90s scene, and reimagine it for the modern day. You and your friends are binge watching the newest season of House of Cards. You remember that you’re about the miss the newest Game of Thrones. You open up your DVR app on your android, and double check that you’ve set it to automatically record every GoT episode. Smiling, you sit back, grab your popcorn, and let Netflix take you automatically to the next episode.